I’ve recently been reading about the importance of first lines of novels. Those sentences that are supposed to grab your readers’ attention and compel them to keep reading. There are websites that list the “best first lines,” two of which are on the American Book Review site and the Bookbaby blog. These lists are entertaining to read, but are also good food for thought for writers.
On the two lists, I’ve seen the first line “It was a dark and stormy night.” This is a line that makes most modern writers snort in derision, but the line served these earlier authors well.
From Edward George Bulwer-Lytton’s novel Paul Clifford published in 1830:
It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the house-tops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.
I think that’s a pretty engaging opening.
From Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time published in 1962: (This is one of my favorite childhood reads.)
It was a dark and stormy night.
In her attic bedroom Margaret Murry, wrapped in an old patchwork quilt, sat on the foot of her bed and watched the trees tossing in the frenzied lashing of the wind. Behind the trees clouds scudded frantically across the sky. Every few moments the moon ripped through them, creating wraithlike shadows that raced along the ground.
Wow, I love that beginning. The verbs, especially, create a three-dimensional image full of movement.
Before it was considered a cliché, I think this phrase worked. And, of course, what follows in each beginning draws you more into each story.
This got me thinking about the first lines of my novels. In particular, I thought the beginning of one of my middle grade novels, The Castle Blues Quake, could use some revising. Originally I wrote it with the “big bang” theory in mind, but I was never quite happy with it.
Below is the new (and improved?) version. Let me know what you think. Generally, what your thoughts on first lines—with either books you’ve read, or books you’ve written or are writing?
Old beginning to Castle Blues Quake:
I bolted up in bed. A streak of yellow light shot under my door then snapped back into darkness. Footsteps creaked past my room. Then a noise that sounded like a monster’s long, loud burp vibrated through the walls.
I fell back onto the pillow. Just Mom or Dad using the bathroom. What passed for a bathroom, anyway, in Mom’s hundred-year-old “dream house” with hundred-year-old pipes that made the rudest sounds.
I burrowed into my down comforter. Down. In California. In the summer. What was wrong with this picture? Cold, wet fog, that’s what. I thought of my BFF Chrissie sweating in New York, kicking her feet out of the sheets while the smells of Chinese food, pizza and hot dogs drifted in through the open window. It’d only been a few days, and missing her and the city was a never-ending ache in my chest.
My mother’s “dream” house turned out to be a “nightmare” house.
It was my third night in the place, and I still had trouble sleeping. How could I relax with the noisy pipes that sounded like a monster’s long, loud burp vibrating through the walls? With the creaking footsteps past my door every time Mom or Dad or Sage used the bathroom. With the branch scratching my darkened window like the fleshless fingers of a zombie rising from its grave, a grave most likely hidden in the backyard.
I burrowed into my down comforter…
Linda, since you are asking, here is my 2 cents worth. I think starting it at “It was my third night…” Opens up the readers mind as to what, who, where???
And you mentioned A Wrinkle In Time, omg, that book had such a big impact on me, it shifted my view of the world that is still with me today.
Wayne, I think that’s a really interesting idea. Let me play with it and see, but right off the bat, I like it and your reasoning for starting with that paragraph. Thank you so much for this!
Yes, A Wrinkle in Time is such an awesome story. It meant a lot to me and got me hooked on time travel books as well as science (and science fiction) and later appreciating the imagery she creates with her writing.
Thank you for your comments!!
I recognize the importance of first lines, but don’t really like shocking the reader … meaning don’t want to go out of my way to grab him, then move to the actual story. I think opening in the character’s world is important, showing the character doing something unusual, or coming to a strong conclusion. But anything about night or storm makes me wonder.
Silvia, thanks for reading and commenting. Does storm or night make you wonder in a good way (want to keep reading) or in a boring, cliche way?
In a boring, cliche way. Sadly. That should not be the case, I know, but I’ve seen too many starting that way only to have it be a shock-type hook. Just like with the period after every word. I.Told.You. Something I used to love as emphasis, but it’s been overdone, I think.
I agree, I think the stormy night opening can’t be used anymore. And the periods–it was very effective the first few times, but has gone into the realm of cliche–lost it’s impact. Thanks, Silvia!
I like your new opening. You might even be able to add to that first line with “once the lights went out.” But I agree, some of the great ‘oldies’ lines aren’t appropriate anymore without some kind of a twist added to them. But I still love “It was the best of times, it was the worst of the times…”
Aubrey, thanks for stopping by and for your suggestion!